Omar al-Bashir Escapes Again: a shameful oversight by the ‘leaders’ of South Africa

So President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan has escaped again. Indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) more than five years ago for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide, he has managed to elude arrest ever since and remains a fugitive despite being the head of one of Africa’s largest states.

Omar al-Bashir returns to a hero's welcome in Khartoum
Omar al-Bashir returns to a hero’s welcome in Khartoum Photo: AP

Perhaps most disappointing is the fact that al-Bashir was allowed to depart South Africa after an African Union (AU) meeting, despite that state being a member of the ICC and therefore obliged to detain this most despotic of rulers. The ICC has long been accused of bias against African states and, indeed, most of those currently being prosecuted – whether in person or absentia – come from Africa. Situations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Kenya, the Ivory Coast, Libya and the Central African Republic have been investigated and indictments made, whilst events in the Middle East (such as Palestine) and Europe (such as Ukraine) are yet to draw conclusions.

It may be then that African leaders have a point about the unfairness of the ICC’s critical gaze. Yet could it not be simply that Africa is the most unstable continent, where horrific crimes are committed by politicians and the military alike on a daily basis? Few regimes in Africa score well when subjected to close scrutiny. Even South Africa, a supposedly wealthy and democratic bastion of regional leadership, has proven itself in recent years to be corrupt, crime-infested and intolerant, its leader Jacob Zuma hardly the paragon of virtue.

South Africa’s reluctance to detain al-Bashir is troubling given the crimes he is accused of committing, namely waging a genocidal war against the restive province of Darfur which has rumbled on for over a decade. Indeed, such is the persistent misery and seeming unending nature of the Darfur conflict, that it is barely mentioned today in international affairs or in the global press.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled Darfur due to persistent, brutal conflict Photo: Michel de Groot

Darfur existed as an independent sultanate from the early seventeenth century until 1916 when, in the midst of WWI, it was annexed to Sudan by British colonial forces and their Egyptian allies. Since that moment, Darfur has not escaped the oversight of Khartoum which refuses to relinquish control over the province or make any concessions to regional autonomy.

The most troubling aspect of British colonialism was its tendency to forge and manipulate unnatural borders, merging disparate tribes into unitary states where ethnic and religious differences were completely overlooked. Unlike most of Sudan, the people of Darfur are generally not Arabs, coming instead from the Fur and Tunjur groups.

Omar al-Bashir has exploited the legacy of ethnic division by providing government support to the Janjaweed, a Darfur-based Arab militia responsible for numerous atrocities against the civilians of the province. Pure racism and a fury at the presumptuousness of the liberation movements in Darfur to seek independence have fuelled Khartoum’s aggression.

As a state that suffered the bitter legacy of colonialism more than most, South Africa would do well to recognise the historical and political conditions in Sudan, and Darfur in particular, which have led to such bloodshed, misery and displacement.

Bashir and Zuma - allies in opposition to the ICC Photo: SA Breaking News
Bashir and Zuma – allies in opposition to the ICC
Photo: SA Breaking News

It is one thing to stand by your continent and defend its interests; yet to blindly and hypocritically overlook the tyrannical rule of Omar al-Bashir – whose reign surely defies everything that South Africa claims to stand for (democracy, a ‘rainbow nation’, universal rights) – is unacceptable.

If the recent actions on a Pretoria runway do not result in sanctions, then the ICC can forget about bringing to justice those who deserve it most.


For a useful historical background to the Darfur conflict see:

Colonial Legacy, Ethnic Tension and Unfettered Violence: South Sudan on the Brink

The world’s newest nation, South Sudan, looks set to become embroiled in a bloody civil war as forces loyal to the former vice president Riek Machar seek to overthrow Salva Kiir’s government. With Kiir a member of the majority Dinka ethnic group and Machar of the Nuer people, the growing conflict has already taken on ethnic overtones that threaten to increase the barbarity of the bloodshed.

The jubilant independence celebrations are already a distant memory
The jubilant independence celebrations are already a distant memory

Much of the misery in Sudan, and there has been plenty over the past few decades, relates to its colonial history. At times conquered and settled by Arabs, Ottomans and the British, the lands of the Sudanese have a tumultuous past. Forcibly amalgamating a variety of ethnic and tribal groups into a nominally unified polity, the colonial forebears set the stage for future conflict.

The arrival of the British in the 19th century brought further complication to Sudan. Introducing Christianity to a largely Muslim populace, the British missionary force had partial success, creating an extra dimension of tension within the already-divided land. The animistic and Christian beliefs that predominated in South Sudan was in stark contrast to the northern part of the country, whose historical closeness to Egypt ensured Islam persisted. The consequent civil wars of a unified Sudan in the 20th century were a direct result of this legacy and helped finally lead to South Sudan being granted independence in 2011.

British colonists played divide-and-rule with the various Sudanese ethnic groups
British colonists played divide-and-rule with the various Sudanese ethnic groups

Yet within the southern country are ethnic divisions, with each traditional tribal group preserving different colonial memories. Whilst some welcomed the arrival of the Ottomans and the British, others bitterly opposed their coming and resisted colonisation. Resentment at these differing responses to subjection by foreign powers, married to older enmities over tribal belief and territory, help fuel divisions today.

The bloody violence these historical tensions encumber is best illustrated by the 1991 massacre of several thousand members of the Dinka community in Bor, a town currently held by Machar’s Nuer rebels. That Machar himself has since admitted being responsible for the ordering the massacre illuminates the difficulties inherent in the previous South Sudanese government. Trying to create a political structure that is inclusive of the country’s ethnic groups, without evoking memories of inter-tribal violence, is a mean task.

Machar admitted to ordering the 1991 Dinka Bor Massacre. It is the best known of many such massacres carried out along ethnic lines in the country
Machar admitted to ordering the 1991 Dinka Bor Massacre. It is the best known of many such massacres carried out along ethnic lines in the country

That South Sudan now sits on the precipice of genocidal war is a result of the territorial boundaries put in place by colonists of the 19th century and a consequence of the inability to suppress the painful memories of ethnic and tribal enmity to create a unified, singular South Sudanese national identity. Given Africa’s colonial past, this is no isolated event. At this present moment, however, it stands as its most prescient.